Brown Sues Kern County Labor Contractor For Worker Safety, Wage Law Violations

Attorney General Edmund G. Brown Jr. filed a lawsuit Wednesday against an Imperial Valley farm labor contractor Juan Munoz for failing to pay minumum wage and overtime, as well as committing "potentially deadly" worker safety violations by neglecting to provide rest breaks, potable drinking water or shade to field workers.

Juan Munoz supplied field workers to onion farms in Kern County and in the Coachella Valley and Mojave Desert.

"In the scorching summer months, farm work can be dangerous if workers aren't given rest breaks, shade and drinking water," Brown said. "We have no tolerance for contractors like Munoz who deny their workers a fair wage and subject them to potentially deadly working conditions."

In 2009, Brown's office conducted a routine field visit at a Southern California onion farm. During the visit, Brown's office interviewed more than ten workers hired by Munoz.

According to the workers, Munoz gathered workers from throughout Southern California and delivered them to an onion field that was often far from their home. Once at the fields, they worked split shifts throughout the day and night, slept in the fields and bathed in a nearby reservoir.

The workers were not given rest breaks or potable drinking water, and the employees were not provided with training on how to recognize and prevent heat exhaustion.

Growers paid Munoz a set price per piece, such as a four-gallon onion sack, and Munoz determined the rate of pay for the field workers. The workers were typically paid $1.23 for each four-gallon sack of onions they harvested.

Employees worked split shifts totaling approximately 70 hours a week, but were not provided premium pay. Under state law, workers are entitled to an additional hour of pay if they have less than an eight-hour break between shifts. Workers were also denied overtime pay. State law requires employers to pay overtime (time and a half) to employees who work more than ten hours a day.

In addition, many of the workers were paid in cash below the minimum wage without a written statement of hours worked, rate of pay or deductions taken, also a violation of state labor laws. After working long hours in the fields, workers were often forced to wait up to two hours for their paycheck.

Stories of the Field Workers

Feliciano Sepulveda and his wife Sonia worked between 14 and 16 hours a day and, like other workers, slept in the fields. He and his wife regularly worked split shifts without premium pay or overtime, despite the long days. When the Sepulvedas collected their wages at the end of the day, Munoz rounded down to the lower dollar amount. During the 2009 harvesting season, neither of the Sepulvedas received training on the warning signs of heat exhaustion and often found the water cans empty during the hottest part of the day.

Mario Gomez and his wife, Araceli Ramos, worked on the same wage ticket, a violation of California labor laws, which require the work done by two individuals to be reported for each worker. Both worked approximately 15 hours a day, but neither of them received overtime or premium pay for split shifts. When calculated, Gomez's and Ramos' earnings totaled less than $8 an hour with no deductions or taxes withheld from their wages.

Nicolas Salinas worked 12 to 14 hours a day, 7 days a week, but was never paid overtime or premium pay. At the end of the day, Salinas waited more than two hours to be paid and often received only between $4 and $7.50 an hour. On Salinas' paystub, his hours worked were often incorrect, and no deductions were taken out for taxes.

The federal minimum wage is $7.25/hour, and the state minimum wage is $8.00/hour.

The lawsuit alleges that Munoz violated California's unfair competition laws.

The lawsuit seeks: - A permanent injunction - Civil penalties; - Restitution to the field workers; - Other legal costs.

Information Provided By US Department Of Justice

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